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Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Annotation Project: Killing Floor

Let’s do our first Annotation Project in a while. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are comically macho, but they’re big fun and massive bestsellers. He’s living every aspiring author’s dream: Start at 40, get a big hit with your first book, crank out one a year every year starring that same beloved hero until you’re ready to retire. Let’s figure out how to do that.  You can download a Word version of these notes here.  (I promise our next book will be more literary!)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Peril of Bad Scenework in Justice League

So I finally got around to seeing Justice League, which is nowhere near as bad as Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but still terrible. I don’t talk a lot about “how not to” examples on this blog, but I thought we might pause to look some terrible scenework.

The original version of this movie was made by BvS:DoJ writer/director Zach Snyder, and then it was taken away from him (supposedly he left due to a family emergency, but many reports claim he’d already been forced off the project) and massively rewritten/reshot by Joss Whedon. Everybody liked Whedon’s The Avengers, so the hope was that he would purge Snyder’s darkness, lighten it up, add some jokes, and save the franchise. He did the first three, but not the fourth. From everything I’ve heard, Snyder’s version would have been even worse (Cyborg causes his mom’s death and then dies gruesomely at the end, for instance), but the scenes that are understood to be Whedon’s are pretty terrible, and worse than the remaining Snyder scenes.

To be fair, Whedon had to work incredibly fast and all of the actors were busy doing other things. Gal Gadot was off promoting Wonder Woman and had to be added to many reshot scenes using green screen later. Jason Momoa was shooting his own Aquaman movie. Henry Cavill was famously shooting the latest Mission: Impossible movie and not allowed to shave his mustache to play Superman. So it’s a miracle anything coherent was produced.

Let’s look at three bad scenes, all of which are rumored to be Whedon scenes: Lois Lane’s sit-and-talk with Martha (“Martha!”) Kent,

Bruce Wayne’s walk-and-talk with Diana Prince,

and Aquaman’s stand-and-talk with Mera.

These scenes break all my rules for scenework, and they show how my tips can be useful. Most importantly:

  • There is no reblocking (Bruce and Diana walk parallel to each other, but that doesn’t count)
  • There is no touching in any of the three scenes.
  • There are no objects exchanged (Lois does give Martha [“Martha!”] a coffee cup before they sit down, but then the scene really begins)

Each of these scenes would have been helped immensely by literal push and pull between the characters, preferably with one significant touch. Each would have been far more dynamic if the plot point they were discussing was represented by an object that changed hands.

Worst of all is that, according to the scale I describe here, they’re all level-one “listen and accept” scenes. The first two are bland and placid, while the Aquaman scene is more volatile, but there’s still not any convincing going on. They don’t like each other, but Mera tells Aquaman what he needs to do and Aquaman agrees. In none of them does either party try to force or cajole or trick or seduce the other into doing anything, and nobody is being clever.

Now let’s look at a better scene. This one had reshot inserts by Whedon to interject jokes, but it’s mostly Snyder. Bruce Wayne meets with Barry Allen to try to recruit him for the team.

Bruce actually wants something and is determined to get it. And how does he do that? First Bruce forces Barry to accept a photo of himself showing him using his powers, then Bruce cleverly throws a bat-thingie at Barry to see if he’ll grab it out of the air, and by doing so Barry visibly admits his powers and tacitly accepts his place on the new team. That’s good, basic meat-and-potatoes scenework. It’s not an Oscar clip, but it’s a thousand times more engaging than the other three scenes.

Based on what we’ve seen in other projects, Whedon has more storytelling talent in his pinkie than Snyder has all over, so it’s pretty obvious that Whedon (who took a re-write credit but no re-directing credit) was just spackling in the cracks here. Snyder turned in an unwatchable three hour cut, WB cut all the awfulness out until it was an incomprehensible 90 minutes, and then Whedon had to shoot 30 more minutes to tie everything together with spit and baling wire, even though he couldn’t get all the actors in the same room. So he made it easier on himself by shooting listless unambitious scenes.

The result was a big flop that killed the franchise. The movie technically made a profit but it tanked its company’s stock, which is far worst than losing money.  Aquaman and another Wonder Woman are in the can, but The Flash and Cyborg seem to be cancelled and Affleck and Cavill were let go. Supposedly, WB executives rushed the reshoots so that they didn’t lose their year-end bonuses. Hope they invested the money.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Act Breaks in Modern Network Sitcoms

35 years separate the earliest and latest sitcom we’ve looked at, “Cheers” and “The Good Place”. Both are NBC Thursday night sitcoms featuring Ted Danson, but a lot has changed in that time.

Every early “Cheers” episode had a teaser, opening credits, commercial, Act 1, commercial at the midpoint, and Act 2. I think in later years they may have added another commercial at the end with a tag after it. These days, all network TV has a lot more commercial breaks, which means a lot more acts. This is for three reasons:

  • Shows are shorter to allow for more ads (22 minutes instead of 26)
  • Advertisers realized they didn’t want to be the middle ad of a five-ad break, so each commercial break has gotten shorter.
  • Networks now like to have no ads between shows to keep you watching the next one, which just makes sense.

The result is that a half hour now has as many commercial breaks (4) as an hour used to have, and when you write a half-hour spec pilot intended for network, you’re supposed to indicate those four act breaks in your script (and a fifth act break at the end, of course).

(Of course, you might say, “That’s super-annoying, I’m not going to do that, I’ll just say that my sitcom is for Netflix or HBO and include no commercial breaks, but if you do, know that the person reading your script will expect it to meet the content expectations of those networks. If it’s obviously a tradition sitcom without breaks, they’ll call foul.)

I don’t have a copy of the “Good Place” pilot taped off TV, but let’s look at where the act breaks seem to have been:

  • 1st act out at 3:17: Eleanor is invited out to see heaven. ”Did I have a purse? No, I’m dead. Right. Okay.” Cut to the brief opening credits.

A commercial would traditionally go here, but I wonder if it really did. One tricky thing about this pilot is that the twist is such of big part of it, both because it makes the show a lot more interesting, and because the main character seems sort of bland before we find out she’s an imposter. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on first airing, they skipped this break. But still, if you were writing the pilot, this would count as a break, and it’s just interesting enough to provide one.

  • 2nd act out at 9:36:  Eleanor hits Chidi with the news that she doesn’t belong there. “There’s been a big mistake, I’m not supposed to be here.” “Wait, what?”

This is the closest thing to a midpoint break, but storywise it’s more like a late ¼ point break, in that this is where the concept is really established, the plot begins, and the character becomes interesting. This is a great twist and a great break.

  • 3rd act out at 17:03: Eleanor gets fed up with trying to behave at Tahani’s party. “I just have to go upstairs and steal a bunch of gold stuff.”

This is close to the ¾ point, but it’s more like a late midpoint break. Having Eleanor try to fit into this world is officially a disaster, so the easy way (bluffing it) won’t work.

  • 4th act out at 20:38: Chidi makes Eleanor see that her badness is causing the world to fall apart. “Eleanor, this is all happening because of you.” “Ah, fork me.”

At this point, the acts are getting very short, which is typical of modern shows. They cram most of the ads into the second half. This one provides a literal spiritual crisis, so it’s a good final ad break.

  • Ending at 22:50:  Eleanor demands that Chidi join her conspiracy. “My soul is in your hands, soulmate. What’s it gonna be?” “Oh, stomachache.”

Ideally, the plot engine (what the hero will do every week) would be established at the midpoint at the latest, but in this case, as we’ve discussed, it’s not until the final moment, or presumably just after the final moment, when Chidi agrees to tutor her.

So that’s how to do network ad breaks these days. Each one has to be interesting enough to keep us from changing channels, which is hard to do four times, but these qualify. Schur had a dozen seasons of network TV under his belt at this point and he was an old master at the ad break business.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Unsustainability of “The Good Place”

I don’t want to talk about it much, for fear of ruining this amazing first season for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but suffice it to say that the season finale (episode 13) ends with a twist that completely blows up the concept of “The Good Place”. Season 2 is an entirely different show which also ends with a finale that blows everything up, and season 3 began last week, starting over from scratch. It certainly seems impossible that this show will last for 125 episodes like “Parks and Recreation” did.

Why do this? Schur seems to be tired of stretching things out for “six seasons and a movie” on his previous shows and now he’s ready to just blow his wad on a jaw-dropping, mind-bending thrill ride, one with no interest in creating familiar comforts, week after week and year after year. And the result is certainly amazing to watch.

The show’s biggest twist arrived at the end of episode 13, but there were little twist-cliffhangers at the end of every episode, which is part of what made it so bingeable. Many of these twists seemed juicy enough to sustain multiple episodes, but Schur and his writers wrung each of them dry one episode at a time, almost willfully. The show never had romance foremost on its mind, though of course that’s a classic slow-burn show sustainer, but this show had one episode (ep 10, iirc) where it quickly tried out and dismissed every possible pairing, then moved on. (Some would be revisited in season 2, and I got the feeling they wished they hadn’t already dismissed them in season 1)

But the second season, while great, is not as great as the first, which begs the question, could they have sustained the original premise if they had wanted to? Could Eleanor’s quest to prove she belonged in heaven by becoming a better person every week have gone on for a syndication-friendly 100 episodes? How many different ways are there to try to be a better person? For that matter, could the mystery of how she got there have unspooled much more slowly?

Maybe? The number one strength that used to be prized in sitcom writers was the ability to create the illusion of growth and change without ever upsetting the status quo. If the show had stuck with its original premise, it could have easily gotten dreadful, or perhaps it could have gotten richer as it progressed far more gradually. We’ll never know.

Let’s look at more checklist boxes this show doesn’t check:
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No, it’s not really a strong plot engine.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Just the opposite.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
No, it does seem resolvable: It’s better (but harder) to become better than to be yourself.
These would have had to be tweaked. There would have to be a more episodic plot engine, where Eleanor, could, perhaps, have interacted with one new arrival in every episode. Eleanor’s flaw would have needed more of an upside: The others in heaven would have had to find her cynicism more charming (like Hawkeye on “MASH”). The thematic dilemma (be yourself or be a better person) would have had to be tilted less heavily to one side, which is to say that she can’t have been so resolutely awful and irredeemable in her previous life. We would have to think “Maybe she should just be herself”, which is something we never think on the actual show.

I came up with this checklist on the assumption that every show needs to last for at least 100 episodes to be syndicatable and make its money back, which was the old rule. But the rules are changing. I have no idea how much money this show made from Netflix binges, but maybe that money gave it a reason to be less like weekly comfort food and more of an intentionally unsatiating binge fest. Maybe Bell and Danson didn’t want to sign 7 year contracts, so the show never intended to last very long?

So should this change how you write pilots? That’s up to you. Do you want to show that you can create a classically satisfying and sustainable show, or that you’re here to do something new, even if that means burning it all down?

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Head-Heart-Gut in “The Good Place”

It’s been a while since we talked about head-heart-gut polarization. To review, in some stories every character is three-dimensional, and that can work well, but it’s not the only way to tell a great, sophisticated story. Just as often, if not more often, the three main characters are polarized so that one is all-head, one is all-heart, and one is all-gut. (Sometimes this only applies to the three sidekicks and the main character is three dimensional.) In other stories, with bigger casts, some of these body parts are split up further. Sometimes, if you have three gut characters, they can be dived into spleen, stomach and groin.

The “Good Place” pilot has only three main characters and it’s a great example of classic head-heart-gut polarization. Eleanor is all gut: Hungry, horny, raunchy, selfish, insulting, etc. Chidi is all-head: An ethics professor, he overexplains and overthinks everything. Michael is (or seems to be at this point in the show) all-heart: a glowing, angelic, open-hearted lover of life and the world, bestowing care and affection wherever he goes.

This creates classic comedy and significant meaning as well. We see ourselves in all three, and different parts of our own 3-dimensional personalities identify humorously and painfully with each of the three in turn, thinking “Yes, I can go to that extreme sometimes and it’s so embarrassing when I do!”

Any polarized story is ultimately about how we need to integrate ourselves to evolve, and each of these three end up going on (or seeming to go on) a season-long quest to discover their missing elements. Eleanor tries to learn to be a smarter, more compassionate person. Chidi tries to learn to trust his gut and fall in love. (It’s telling that dealing with Eleanor gives Chidi a stomachache, as she reminds him of his missing organ.) Michael explores what it means to be human, especially in dealing with Eleanor, the first non-angelic human he’s had to deal with.

This show will soon expand to become a six-member ensemble, and it’s interesting to see where the new ones end up:

  • Janet is clearly a second head: an actual repository of all knowledge, unable to understand human emotion. Why isn’t she too similar to Chidi? Because her serenity is so different from his neurosis.
  • When Jason is revealed, he will clearly be a second gut. He will become stomach/groin, and Eleanor will become more spleen/groin. He’ll have some heart to him, too, though.
  • But where does that leave Tahani? Her main character note is “snooty”, which usually lines up with head (Think Fraiser or Winchester), but she’s not a therapist, doctor, or intellectual. She’s sort of a fake-heart, as her background is revealed to be an effective but smugly-self-satisfied philanthropist. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit well into this dynamic. What do you think? Where would you put Tahani?

“The Good Place” is a deep and sophisticated show. Like “Star Trek”, it’s a journey into inner space (and inner conflict) as much as to other worlds. By embodying our three-part personalities in three extremes, each episode re-creates our inner debate as we deal with ethical dilemmas in our own lives.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: Fantasy is What It Feels Like

I’ve said before that straight drama shows us what life is like, but genre shows us what it feels like. Our high school life wasn’t really like “Buffy”, but that’s how it felt, with the world ending every week. “The Good Place” is too weird to have any one genre, but it’s clearly an unrealistic fantasy show, and it very much captures what life feels like.

Specifically, the show captures what it’s like to be on Facebook, where everybody else seems like a perfect person and you feel like a loser-creep compared to them. There’s a hilarious montage in the pilot of everybody talking about how ludicrously angelic they were back on Earth (“Well then he said, ‘you can’t give me both your kidneys, you’ll die’, and I said ‘But you will live. And I know we just met on this bus ten minutes ago, but you seem nice’”). We can’t help but be on Eleanor’s side, because we’ve all felt like her and we have no idea what it’s like to feel like them. I ask again, when was the last time you saved a cat?

I’ve also talked about how every hero should have a public identity that contrasts with their private self, and Eleanor is the ultimate example of that. We begin with Michael summing up her wonderful selfless accomplishments, but only she knows that this was another Eleanor, and she’s actually a terrible person, and there’s been a terrible mix-up. We’ve all felt that way: It’s imposter syndrome, times ten. I’ll go back to that quote from Dylan I’ve used before: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” That’s literally the dilemma she faces.

“Parks and Recreation” was one of the most realistic sitcoms ever, reveling in the mundanity of empty bureaucratic lives in a nowhere town. Schur was shocking us in a different way: Can you believe that a show can be this mundane and low-stakes? “The Good Place” couldn’t be more different, in setting, genre, and tone, but both shows show us lives we can fully identify with, in very different ways: one because of its everyday realism, one because of its fantastical exploration of how life feels, writ on a wild, supernatural canvas.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Pros and Cons of the Very High Concept

When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to get noticed, but one way to do it is with a very-high-concept pilot. I’ve said before that it’s good if there’s something bold, weird, and/or never-before-seen about the concept of your spec pilot. “The Good Place” qualifies in spades.

(Of course, the rules are different when you’re trying to get noticed vs. when you’re actually trying to get something on the air. A script like “The Good Place” is actually a very hard sell to a network, and NBC seems to have only reluctantly aired it, because Schur had made them a lot of money and because the script attracted Bell and Danson.)

But this script also shows how hard it is to write a very-high-concept pilot that satisfies traditional audience expectations. Let’s look at some of the checklist items it didn’t check:
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
 Well, the execution does, because it’s very funny and the leads are very appealing, so everybody who sees it loves it and recommends it to others.  But the concept is a hard sell.  What was it the Talking Heads said: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens?   It’s hard to see how the show would work until you see it. 
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Not really.  There’s an awful lot of set-up here and Eleanor won’t really start trying to be a better person until next week.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No.  There’s a lot of set-up and Eleanor won’t really try to start becoming a better person until next week. 
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Not really.  She doesn’t achieve any goals.   Her accomplishment is to find a co-conspirator
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Not really.  Lots of plot in this episode.
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
No, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before, so its not comfortable to watch.  We don't say, Ah yes, the familiar comforts of this genre!
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
It’s too weird to say.
It simply takes a long time to establish this never-seen-before setting. We spend the entire teaser and first act just learning the rules before we find out anything about our hero. There’s even an orientation video that we and Eleanor have to stop and watch to help us understand. Normally, power points are a bad sign, especially if we don’t care about the hero yet, but in this case, the show gets away with it, because the world is so interesting (and Danson is so appealing).

The downside of this long set-up is that it takes a long time to meet our hero and the real plot driver for the series is not established until the final minutes, leaving no time for a foreshortened example of a typical plot, which viewers crave before they commit to the show. We don’t get to see Chidi helping her yet.

But this show was not a big hit on first airing. It was only when it appeared on Netflix and people could binge the first season that it caught on, to the extent that it has. This wasn’t made by Netflix, it’s still sort of a “Netflix show”, paced more for a binge than for watching week to week, and I think that’s becoming more of the norm, so maybe you can get away with it more now. Or at least Schur can. For a spec premise pilot by an unknown writer, you’d probably still want to have a foreshortened plot taking up the second half, to show that the show will work, which means that your pilot maybe can’t be this super-high-concept.

Don’t get me wrong: In this case, the big risk pays off beautifully.  Your jaw is on the floor the whole time in a delighted way.  As the above still shows, the rules are actually fun to figure out, and the break from sitcom routine is very refreshing.  Schur’s other sitcom on the air now, “Brooklyn 9-9” has what could be called an overly-familiar TV setting, which is a limitation that show must overcome.  This show, to put it mildly, doesn’t have that issue.  Yes, it doesn’t meet all of our expectations, but it teaches us to rewrite our expectations, and once we realize how appealing it is, we’re more than willing to do that.